Before becoming a global anthem, the NBA’s theme, and the sampled loop of one of N.W.A.’s biggest hits, no one believed in “Express Yourself.”
In hindsight, it seems baffling that anyone could be unswayed by the delirious soul supplied by the horns of the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band or the inspirational shouts of its leader, Charles Wright. But that’s exactly what happened when Wright shopped his now iconic standard in the spring of 1970.
The song title — since borrowed by Dr. Dre, Madonna and Diplo — spontaneously emerged from a Rhythm Band concert at Texas A&M. During a frenetic performance of the band’s previous smash, “Do Your Thing,” Wright amped the crowd by chanting, “Express yourself!”
“I don’t know why it came across my mind, but the more I said it, the crazier they got,” Wright reflects at his house in Fullerton.
Sitting atop a floral couch, the rhythm and blues legend looks a decade younger than his 74 years, wearing black slacks and shiny leather shoes, muscles bulging from a short-sleeve shirt. He still performs and looks ready at a minute’s notice to bust out the shimmies and head fakes he patented during Nixon’s first term.
“No one wanted to record it. I had to sneak a bass player, drummer, and engineer into the studio one Sunday and cut it in secret,” Wright recalls. “The president of Warner Bros. told me I made a mistake. So did every DJ that I played it for. But I had a feeling that it was a hit.”
The “mistake” turned into the biggest hit of Wright’s career — rising to No. 12 on the Billboard Hot 100 and becoming one of the most licensed songs of the last 40 years. You’ve heard it on ESPN and in Burger King commercials. It is slated to pop up in the film adaptation of Fifty Shades of Grey. Wright wisely retained his publishing rights to the song, affording him both posterity and a pension.
N.W.A. ensured its transmission to the hip-hop generation. “I was initially perturbed. This white kid next door came home from work one day blasting ‘Express Yourself’ and I was like, that’s my song,” Wright says.
Discovering the world’s most dangerous group had failed to give him songwriting credit, Wright called Priority Records to remedy the situation.
“The lady who answered the phone said, ‘I told them they couldn’t get away with that,’” Wright chuckles. “She gave me Ice Cube’s number and I called him and was like, ‘You can’t do that, that’s my song.’ He apologized profusely and I got my royalties.”
Before mastering self-expression, Wright spent his earliest years as one of 14 children picking cotton on a sharecropping farm in Clarksdale, Mississippi. That portion of his life supplies much of the grist for his memoir, being published in February to coincide with the release of a new album.
After moving to Los Angeles in the mid-1950s, Wright attended Manual Arts High, where he became obsessed with doo-wop and joined several vocal ensembles. But as doo-wop begat soul and funk, he formed the harder-grooving Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band. Gigging at local clubs by night, they did session work by day, including a stint as the backing band on Bill Cosby’s first singing record.
The success of “Express Yourself” has perhaps overshadowed the rest of a brilliant career. Amidst today’s social turmoil, his music remains particularly resonant — especially “Comment (If All Men Are Truly Brothers),” a meditation on racial discord famously covered by Wilco.
His entire catalog is available on Spotify and offers testament to a singular discography — one with substantially more depth than an ephemeral string of hits.
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“It’s just real music played by real genuine musicians with real genuine feelings,” Wright says. “I always tried to keep it genuine. Nothing less, nothing more.”